Sunday, November 01, 2009

On Kirsch on Rand

A thoroughly mystifying paragraph by Adam Kirsch:

Yet while Rand took to wearing a dollar-sign pin to advertise her love of capitalism, Heller makes clear that the author had no real affection for dollars themselves. Giving up her royalties to preserve her vision is something that no genuine capitalist, and few popular novelists, would have done. It is the act of an intellectual, of someone who believes that ideas matter more than lucre. In fact, as Heller shows, Rand had no more reverence for the actual businessmen she met than most intellectuals do. The problem was that, according to her own theories, the executives were supposed to be as creative and admirable as any artist or thinker. They were part of the fraternity of the gifted, whose strike, in “Atlas Shrugged,” brings the world to its knees.


One does not normally think of Rand's philosophical position as extraordinarily difficult to figure out; but if it were so easy it's difficult to see how someone can be so completely off. Rand is very clear that capitalism, as she understands has to do not with money as such but with the exemplification of objective values in a market of free individuals. Rand holds that everything has a "philosophically objective value," which is its value as determined by "the most rational mind possessing the greatest knowledge, in a given category, in a given period, and in a defined context (nothing can be estimated in an undefined context". Her example is that an airplane is objectively more valuable than a bicycle for the creative abilities of a rational person. She thinks of this as the true value of it. A free market does not express this form of objective value directly; rather it expresses what she calls a "socially objective value," which depends on and is derivative of the philosophically objective value, but is determined by taking into account that society does not consist entirely of people with "the most rational mind possessing the greatest knowledge," but of people with a wide spread of ability. An airplane may be philosophically more valuable than a bicycle, but I may have no use whatsoever for an airplane and considerable use for a bicycle; it may well be that I can do a better job exercising my rational ability to create if I have a bicycle than if I have an airplane. Since the exercise of one's rational ability to create is the only ultimate goal recognized as healthy in Rand's philosophy, I am entirely rational if I am willing to trade the equivalent of several weeks of labor for a bicycle but would refuse to accept an airplane even if it were given for free. What I am interested in when I engage in such trades, at least if I am rational, is not the best and most informed minds in the most relevant fields, but my mind in my own field. I do not decide whether to buy a telescope on the basis of what Hubble could have done with it, but on the basis of what I can do with it. This is what the market involves: not the best judgments of value but the sum of all judgments of value. A market allows producers and creators, i.e., rational people, to exchange with each other the products of their skills and abilities so that they can gain things of objective value. That market is free which allows "the most rational mind possessing the greatest knowledge" to do its thing; and people are rational in their participation in this market to the extent that they approximate the value judgments of "the most rational mind possessing the greatest knowledge" within the limits of their abilities and resources.

Thus on Rand's view of capitalism, "Giving up her royalties to preserve her vision" is exactly what a good capitalist will do: make contractual agreements, monetary or otherwise, for things of value. On Rand's own principles, she had no right to those royalties: royalties don't attack automatically to works, but are the results of contract. And the publisher had no right to Rand's novel. Rand did not want to give up John Galt's speech, which in her judgment was the most important part of the novel; the publisher did not want to publish a novel that has a character ranting for pages and pages. But they both regarded the novel as being of value, albeit for different reasons, and therefore they had a mutual goal, an acceptable trade that would allow publication of the novel. On her own view, Rand did not literally give up anything: she just recognized that the value of Galt's speech to her publisher, who was primarily interested in publishing books that would sell in the book market, was not the same as it was to her, who was primarily interested in the ideas it represented, and this was taken into account as it always is in a market system, by contractual exchange.

Likewise, anyone who has read Atlas Shrugged knows that it's false that the novel gives automatic membership into 'the fraternity of the gifted' to executives: most of the executives in the book are portrayed as corrupt, incompetent parasites. Only a small handful, like Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, are treated as part of 'the fraternity of the gifted'; and outside that tiny circle only Eddie Willers, the ungifted but decent and honest man whom the parasites will inevitably destroy as an incidental byproduct of their parasitism, is treated in a favorable light. (For that matter, being an artist or writer doesn't automatically guarantee you any favor in Rand's system, either.)

I don't think these things are difficult to pick up in Rand; they are the sorts of things she tended to shout as loud as she could.

(Rand quotations are from her essay, "What Is Capitalism?" in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.)

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